THE SORRENTINE PENINSULA juts into the Tyrrhenian Sea like a knobbly, pointing finger, its rugged shores sprinkled with some of Europe’s most spectacular beaches, its bucolic interior moulded by the limestone Monti Lattari.
Of course, the Amalfi Coast on its southern shore is well known, but the rest of the peninsula is just as beautiful, less infuriatingly busy and without the inflated prices. I only discovered this fairly recently, in spite of being a regular visitor for 20-odd years. From Sorrento, the slog over the mountain to Positano usually involves bumper-to-bumper traffic and the prospect of much more once you arrive. But head south or west and the experience is far more relaxed and enjoyable.
‘Torna a Surriento’, ‘Come back to Sorrento’, the old song goes, and I have, often. Mario Lanza, Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli have all sung about this citrus-blossom-scented, southern-Italian town celebrated for millennia.
The Greeks founded the settlement of Surrentum, ‘the city of the Sirens’, around the 6th century BC, and it was along this northern stretch of the peninsula that those mythical creatures are said to have lured Odysseus. The Romans built opulent villas and great temples along its shore, while in the 18th and 19th centuries, the mild, sunny winter climate inspired Ibsen, Byron, Wagner and Dickens to include it on their Grand Tours.
Sorrento is a handsome place with a spectacular cliff-top setting facing Mount Vesuvius across the glittering Bay of Naples. The ancient town centre is laid out on a Roman grid of narrow lanes, now lined with restaurants serving gnocchi alla sorrentina (a divine blend of tomato, mozzarella and basil) and shops selling lemon-themed souvenirs.
But away from the well-worn paths are little-explored nooks and crannies – the vaulted and frescoed Sedile Dominova, for example, once a meeting space for local aristocracy and now a working-men’s club where old-timers while away sultry afternoons playing cards. Then there are traditional greengrocers and haberdashers huddled behind wooden shop fronts; the astonishing medieval palaces along narrow via Pietà; the beautiful courtyard of Palazzo Correale decorated with old majolica tiles; artisan workshops producing the same wood intarsia for which the town became famous in the 18th century.
When things get busy in the summer, is better to retreat to Marina Grande, the original fishing harbour where the pastel-coloured old houses and sleepy air lend it a nostalgic charm. Fishermen mend their nets on the quayside and locals pile in with visitors to tuck into fritto misto at the waterside restaurants. It doesn’t look that different to when Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica filmed Scandal in Sorrento here back in the 1950s.
Many come simply to soak up the sun (along with the odd trip to Capri or Pompeii), passing lazy days by hotel pools or parked on a sunbed at one of the colourful lidos on wooden jetties over the water.
If Sorrento gets too much, the laid-back town of Vico Equense (once Roman Aequana), which stands on a sheer tufa cliff just along the coast, makes an attractive base. Beach bums tend to head for the small pockets of sand tucked into coves at Marina di Vico and Marina d’Aequa; walkers might tackle the old footpath to Positano, a panoramic three-to-four-hour trek over the mountains; culture hounds hop on the Circumvesuviana train to march around the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Vico Equense also has some serious foodie credentials, with a remarkable number of Michelin-starred restaurants and traditional artisans in the terraced hills above the town, a outstanding deli showcasing local ingredients just off the main road. There are cheesemakers, who produces both the tangy, ovoid Provolone del Monaco and fior di latte, a cow’s-milk mozzarella, and steep organic olive-oil farm, which sells its extra-virgin in New York. The wineries are up here too, hectares of vines planted around a 12th-century grain store teetering 300 metres above the sea. The wine Sireo is an outstanding blend of Fiano and Falanghina grapes bursting with the taste of sun, sea and the fresh mountain air that sweeps down from Monte Faito.
Set in the hills just below the ridge that divides Sorrento from the sheer southern coastline lies the village of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, named for its domination of the gulfs of both Naples and Salerno.
These days it’s a busy agricultural community famous as the home of Don Alfonso 1890, one of southern Italy’s great foodie institutions. In an area not short of a view or two, some of the most spectacular are to be had from the belvedere of the otherwise grim Benedictine monastery Il Deserto, which is nearby and inhabited by a closed order of rather crotchety nuns who expect a little something when you leave.
To the west and south-west of Sorrento is a hilly hinterland – the sprawling Massa Lubrense – and a wild and beautiful stretch of coast that developers have, so far at least, left untouched.
The Amalfi Coast must have been a bit like this before the crowds: tiny beaches and coves folded into rugged cliffs; terraced hillsides planted with olive groves, citrus orchards and neat kitchen gardens; small hamlets with stone houses jollied up by bright geraniums and bougainvillaea; skinny switchback roads climbing high above the shimmering, cobalt-blue sea.
And all around, views, views and more views. It is said that Queen Joan II, who ruled Naples in the 15th century, chose a spot just off the road beyond Capo di Sorrento to bathe in the clear waters. Known locally as the Bagni della Regina Giovanna, the deep inlet is sheltered from the open sea and close to the ruins of a once-splendid Roman villa. It is still an enchanting setting for a swim, especially if it’s deserted, as is often the case.
The Massa Lubrense is home to hamlets and ancient look-out towers, a reminder of repeated invasions over the centuries, surrounded by citrus and olive groves. Nets are stretched out between the trees from October onwards, when the swollen, ripe fruit begins to fall, then rolled and tied up, still suspended, once the harvest is complete. The village of Santa Maria Annunziata is worth a stop for its splendid panoramas of Capri and a traditional meal at La Torre; it is said that Joachim Murat (King of Naples and Napoleon’s brother-in-law) directed the battle of Capri, when the island was wrested from English hands, from nearby Villa Rossi in 1808.
The area is traversed by glorious walking paths; I tagged along behind a group of fit-looking Germans from Termini down to the tip of Punta Campanella nature reserve, through olive groves and juniper- and myrtle-scented macchia mediterranea before dipping steeply towards the sea, to the lighthouse and look-out tower that was built on the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva. From here, at only five kilometres offshore, Capri seems close enough to touch, and the only sounds are of the crashing sea, the whip of the wind and the mournful cry of gulls.
The road only reaches the shoreline at Marina del Cantone, a seaside extension of the quiet village of Nerano, so to explore the lonely stretch of coast between here and Positano it is necessary to hire a boat.
A gentle chug eastwards reveals wild headlands, tiny rocky islands, pockets of pebble beach and yawning sea caves. Beyond the islet of Isca, once owned by the great Neapolitan playwright Eduardo de Filippo, is the Fiordo di Crapolla, a deep gash in the towering limestone cliffs sheltering a scrap of beach, an old chapel and a few abandoned fishermen’s huts. It’s a dramatic setting for a swim, and as the only way to get there – other than a knee-trembling walk down from the village of Torca – is by sea, it’s not unusual to have it to yourself.
Marina del Cantone itself is strung out along a strip of pebbly beach backed by cafés, bars and restaurants with fishing boats pulled up on the shingle.
Busy in July and August with colour-coded sunbeds and umbrellas, it’s popular with yachties from Positano and Capri who come ashore to eat spaghetti con le zucchini. In mid-October, just before the place battened down its hatches for the winter the sun shone, the sea was warm enough to swim in, and the only souls on the beach were a couple of fishermen.